1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Chinese
  4. >
  5. Major issue with learing Chin…


Major issue with learing Chinese on DuoLingo

When DuoLingo tries to teach me a new character, it often just tells me the pronunciation. Then it uses many characters in a scentence so that I have to learn and remember their meanings all at once. I'm a huge fan of DuoLingo, but this makes learning Chinese really difficult on me.

Is there any way I can get DuoLingo to tell me both the pronunciation and the meaning of the character when it first shows it to me? ChineseSkill does this, and it makes the lessons so much easier.

April 7, 2018



I can understand your frustration, but I think that is largely because you are focusing on the wrong things. You are focusing on trying to "know" a language, which is to say, memorize all the meanings and pronunciations of words, all the grammar structures, and develop a formula whereby you can convert what you want to say in English into Chinese, and convert something someone else said in Chinese into English.

The problem with this system may become apparent if you think of it from the other perspective. Look up Chinglish online. You've probably already seen it, there are tons of memes out there, where Chinese signs say humorous things like "Show Civilization to Grass!" We all get a chuckle out of it, but it's important to understand why this happens, because it is a mistake we make just as badly when foreigners learn Chinese.

Chinglish comes from a core problem in traditional foreign language education, which is that it is centered around knowledge, rather than skill. Students memorize information about English, like "sentence patterns" and vocabulary. When their memory fails them, they turn to a dictionary, which is like a memory that never fails. When they want to say something, they use this information by thinking up what they want to say in Chinese, then finding the corresponding words in English, and then putting them together without breaking any obvious grammar rules. The result is a sentence that makes perfect sense in Chinese, but is spoken with English words, and makes no sense to an English speaker.

This same thing happens all around the world, and it's a trap you are falling into right now when you try to "remember their meanings." This is why folks from my parents generation studied years of Spanish - a language so close to English it hurts - and still don't know the language. This is a global phenomena. The new way of learning that has been pioneered by programs like Middlebury's Intensive Summer Language Schools, is immersion. In immersion learning, you don't accumulate knowledge about a language, but instead develop skills in using bits and pieces, even if you don't fully understand what they mean.

This is how you learned your native language. This is how you think when you are fluent in a language. You don't know the dictionary meanings of all words, you just know how to use them together to communicate your ideas. Sometimes you have to get creative, but that's easy because you aren't stuck searching for a word that you haven't learned yet.

This is what duolingo is doing, and it is brilliant. It's also hard, and you're probably conditioned by your education to hate it, but it is the only way you will ever become fluent in Chinese, rather than just speaking Chinglish. In order to make the most of it you have to do a few things:

  1. Stop trying to remember things. Repetition is key, meaning is irrelevant. The more you use a word, the more comfortable you are with applying it to new things. Once you've seen it in a sufficient number of contexts, you'll naturally know how to use it. But this means:

  2. You'll have to repeat lessons A LOT more than usual. This is part of the reason I hated the old system and love crowns. The idea that you "learn" a word and then just have to "review" it later is not how language acquisition works. Instead, you need to naturalize a word, deeply internalizing it's use, so that a sentence just feels right with it, or feels wrong without it.

  3. This means you can stop worrying about getting things wrong. This is one of my favorite features of duolingo. You probably learned to "study" things so that you would get points by giving correct answers on tests. Most of that probably went in one ear and right back out the other. Language isn't about scoring points, it's about retention, and in order to build retention, you need to build context. Both "right" and "wrong" answers help build this context. Duolingo makes a different sound each time you get something wrong, versus get it right. If I'm lingering over a word, I can almost hear the sound in my head, telling me if it will be right or wrong. Because I've been through this decision making process many many times before.

If you are a "slow but steady" 10 points a day learner, with careful notes, trying to remember each lesson, then you will probably never get anywhere. Instead you need to think like a child learning their first language - don't think "what does this mean in English?" but instead "does this feel right?" and "does this sound wrong?"

The hardest thing is that this means you will honestly have very little incentive to keep learning, because this is not as rewarding as memorizing a word and getting a nice shiny gold skill level. And that's where motivation is the key. If you really want to learn Chinese, and have things in your life that draw you to the language, places where you want to use the language, people you want to talk to, and books you want to read, you'll stick with it, and you'll learn. If you don't have any of these, then it will probably be impossible for you to learn the language simply because you think you should, no matter how you study.


I have to give this a hearty thumbs up. As a native English speaker who learned Mandarin, immersion or “trial by fire” is the only way to go. I agree that pronunciation is super important. When I first started learning, a friend I was living and learning with insisted that I spend a whole solid month on nothing but pronunciation. So I did. For 30 days I went over each sound, one by one in all four tones. I’ll never forget “a a a a, ai ai ai ai, an an an an” over and over again. I thought I’d be sick. But now twenty years later, while my vocabulary is fairly shot due to neglect, when I speak with someone from “guonei” they always praise my pronunciation and often remark that it’s better than theirs.

I wish Duolingo would have more of a focus on basic pronunciation, or at least the option to study it. Every language I can think of either has an alphabet, a finite collection of “sounds” (Mandarin falls into this category), or some combination thereof. This would be a huge benefit to not only speak new languages, but actually sound like we’re taking our study seriously. I mean, you might make it through the entire collection of exercises any language course has to offer but if you sound like a five-year-old, you’ve got a long way to go ;)


I especially agree that current Chinese course could add additional exercises or even sub-forks to call out word-pairs/triplets/etc. that just differ in tones.


Very thoughtful, well written reply. Thank you!


Have an ingot! You're very generous, and I understand why: little "game-like" learning tools don't really cut it anyway when all is said and done. Nothing replaces a live, well-educated teacher to walk you through the meanders of acquiring a language in a non-literal way. However, not every Chinese language program is as replete with repetitive errors as Duolingo is (and I am only HSK3-II level). If you look at Wordswing or Chairman Bao, for instance, these programs are dealing with the same challenges, but they offer a stable set of references as complete packages (reading, writing, grammar, text comprehension drills, and tests) that put the learner at ease. Pandanese, a newer program online, is fantastic for learning radicals, the errors in Chinese are practically non-existent, although the mnemonics in English are still being corrected for syntax errors. If learning Chinese with Duolingo only, by itself is a bit like thinking you've learned how to drive when actually, your only practice was at the carnival, driving a bumper-car around for a few hours. You'll get a few smart moves, but highway driving? Maybe not so much...


If you do the Memrise course first, you will find the duolingo to be a perfect continuation


I have found a similar problem with that, for example when it teaches me "Sān" it tells me how to pronounce it, and the relating Chinese character. But when I must put it into a sentence and translate it into English, during the Numbers lesson. I have to check the meaning by hovering over it, just to know how to say "Three Yuan".


ya its a very strange way of teaching, usually i just skip all the pronunciation stuff so it comes up after the sentences. theres no way of getting duolingo to show you the meanings without extensions unfortunately

Learn Chinese in just 5 minutes a day. For free.